A qualifier run is like a sugar boost, but winning a provincial title has far more sustenance — and relevance
“The key ingredient
The Galway and Dublin hurlers have to win Leinster or another league before they can win an All-Ireland
& Kildare footballer Peter Kelly at the launch of the Leinster SFC with the Delaney Cup, a trophy his side need to win to boost their future All-Ireland chances. Picture: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile
IF YOU were to believe some people, the provincial championships should carry a government health warning. Something like:
WARNING:REAL BUSINESS DOESN’T BEGIN UNTIL AUGUST
WARNING: WINNING PROVINCIAL CHAMPIONSHIP CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR ALL-IRELAND CHANCES
We recently came across a snippet about the media launch of this year’s football championship. No reigning provincial champion was represented, it was noted, but rather players from Cork, Down, Dublin and Galway, something which apparently told its own tale.
But let’s examine that lineup as well our friend’s thesis that bit closer. You can hardly say being knocked out of last year’s Connacht championship helped Galway; they never recovered from losing to Sligo, just as Mayo didn’t either.
As for Dublin, true, last year they came through the back door to reach their first All-Ireland semi-final in three seasons, but it wasn’t as if they went any further than they did as provincial champions in 2006 and 2007. In fact, it was because they could draw on the memory of their five provincial titles, on top of an overdue good league campaign, that provided them with enough confidence to weather the loss to Meath.
Last year’s Ulster championship was pivotal in Down’s development. Beating Donegal in Ballybofey consolidated their faith in James McCartan and confirmed their run to the Division Two league final hadn’t been just some lucky streak. They lost to Tyrone in the next round but learned from that loss, mainly that they should have beaten Tyrone because they had had so much of the ball. They would hardly have fought for and won all that possession if the provincial championships didn’t matter.
They do, just as winning them still matters. It’s not just because they give mid-tier counties a tangible goal to aspire to, or prompt an emotional outpouring or a sense of closure and actualisation that even reaching an All-Ireland semi-final cannot eclipse.
If you’re interested in just who wins Sam and Liam in a given year, you’ll find invariably they’re sides who have won multiple provincial titles — though just maybe not one in that particular year.
That’s the mistake many of us make. We look at the value of the provincial championship solely through the lens of that given year. A provincial champion or finalist loses a last-12 or last-eight game to a side which has built up steam through the qualifiers and we declare the provincial championships are irrelevant.
We’re not seeing the bigger picture. In the back door era —- in which we have a higher calibre of champion — All-Ireland champions are built over time and one of the key building blocks is winning provincial championships and/or national leagues.
Take the Tipperary hurlers. They won the league and Munster in 2008. They won Munster and reached both national finals in 2009. When Cork ambushed them last year, they still had enough credit in the confidence bank from winning and reaching all those Munster and league finals to go and win the trophy of their dreams.
The Cork footballers were favourites to beat Kerry in the 2009 All-Ireland final because of their comprehensive semi-final win over defending champions Tyrone. What people now overlook is that Cork would never have had the conviction to beat Tyrone if they hadn’t beaten Kerry convincingly weeks earlier. That win over Tyrone has continued to stand to them — and that win was founded on winning Munster in 2008 and 2009.
That’s why Cork won last year’s All-Ireland final and Down did not. Cork weren’t just far more familiar with playing in All-Irelands but far more used to winning silverware. Even then Down had played in a league final earlier that year.
You go through every All-Ireland football finalist since the turn of the millennium and they’ve invariably either played in a league final that same year or won a provincial title that year or the year before. The only exception is Tyrone in 2005 — a veteran side who had reached the provincial final and league semi-final that year.
Of course, the provincial championships are flawed. They’re lopsided (though merging Connacht and Munster in football would soon end that). They start off far too low-key, they’re run off way too slowly and reaching some provincial finals can seriously compromise your All-Ireland aspirations for that year (we can say now that if anyone else but Tyrone loses this year’s Ulster final, they’re going to be picked off six days later by some team surging through the qualifiers).
But whoever wins that Ulster final have built themselves a platform for future All-Ireland success.
A qualifier run is like a sugar boost; winning a provincial title has far more sustenance. When you get past that flurry of shocks and activity in late July/early August, and the season peters back out to three- and four-week layoffs, come September you’re left with the sides who’ve routinely won provincial silverware in previous mid-summers.
Of this year’s All-Ireland contenders — Kerry, Cork, Dublin and Tyrone — the Dubs are the only ones who need another provincial win, having lost the league final. Kildare or Down certainly need to be winning one. The Galway and Dublin hurlers similarly have to win Leinster or another league before they can win an All-Ireland.
It just mightn’t be this year’s All-Ireland, that’s all.
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